The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Pinnacle Awards were announced Oct. 13, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place virtually Dec. 8.
Next is Artificial Intelligence Industry Executive of the Year (Private Company) finalist Willie Hicks, who’s federal chief technology officer at Dynatrace Federal. Here, he talks career turning points, key achievements, proud career moments and more.
What has made you successful in your current role?
I often like to say, “I am an educator, but I am also a learner.” This is how my parents raised me — that you need to listen more than you speak. On your own, you will never know as much as there is to know, so you must absorb all of the wisdom that surrounds you.
Fortunately, I am blessed to work with a very talented and motivated Dynatrace team that offers me this opportunity every day. I spend much of my time listening to their ideas and acting upon their best insights. This serves as the foundation for all of our successes.
What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?
In a sense, I really didn’t start becoming a learner until I was well into my 20s. I was part of a systems engineering team during the tech bubble. We were paid and promoted according to the certifications we earned. So we’d gather together in an apartment for entire weekends to do “exam crams” — eating pizza and studying hard so we could pass the certification test on a Monday. We’d earn a new one every couple of months, and this led to fast promotions and pay raises. I thought I had the world at my feet.
But then something interesting — and inspiring — happened: I was promoted to systems architect, and received business cards with “Willie Hicks/Architect” printed on them. One day at lunch, a real architect — a gentleman who designed buildings and bridges — overheard a conversation I was having with colleagues.
“You guys really bother me,” he told us. “You call yourselves architects. But you have no background in building things. If I built a building like you build code, the building would fail.”
At first, I was taken aback. But over time, I realized he was right. My career had been all about earning pieces of certificate paper to make more money and get ahead. “But what am I learning?” I thought. “What am I building?”
The experience literally drove me to go back to school, to earn a master of science in information engineering. I sought to emerge as a more disciplined professional — someone who was determined to apply highly rigorous thought to everything I did.
This has proved essential as Dynatrace seeks to perform as a top leader in artificial intelligence/software intelligence innovation for federal agencies. I firmly believe that going back to school has better positioned me to help customers leverage AI to detect anomalies and identify the root causes of IT performance issues.
And we are building something meaningful in the process — something that empowers them to best defend our nation and serve its citizens.
What key achievements did you have in 2020/2021?
In September 2021, my team earned for Dynatrace a Federal Information Processing Standard Publication 140-2 Certification from NIST. The certificate validates the cryptography in our Software Intelligence Platform — that it meets the highest of security, confidentiality and dependability standards. My team and I played a key part in moving Dynatrace certifications forward.
Facilitating theses certifications is a big step that elevates us for artificial intelligence — it communicates the technology is safe, it can be trusted and it gets agencies closer to embracing and implementing it.
Additionally, as cloud environments increase in complexity and threat vectors widen, we will continue to seek to exceed data privacy and security standards: We are currently pursuing Department of Defense Information Network Approved Products List approval for our platform. This will assure to all customers that DISA has vetted our platform in meeting its cybersecurity and interoperability standards. Subsequently, agencies will gain a greater sense of trust in working with Dynatrace.
With my support and guidance, Dynatrace Federal has gone from an organization that was more opportunistic and focused mainly on sales to an organization where granted sales are critical, but the focus is on optimizing the government’s mission and determining how we can support that mission to better serve the nation.
What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?
I’m very proud to take a proactive role in our company’s ongoing commitment to diversity. We have launched a number of programs to bring in women and men with a vast range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This ensures that no “single mindset” drives our pursuit of innovation and the products we bring to government customers.
Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?
That my father lived long enough to see the man and professional whom I’ve become, before he passed away last year from cancer.
He raised me and my siblings outside of Auburn, Alabama. He was a landscaper who never went beyond elementary school for an education, but he had a sharp mind for details and numbers. His work ethic was more impressive — he was unfailingly on the job from dawn to dusk — and this will always influence me.
He even “fired” me once when I was working for him. He came to my bedroom early one morning so we could go to work, but I was a typical 16-year-old who didn’t want to get out of bed. I told him I’d meet him at the job site. But I didn’t show up until past 9:30 a.m. He sent me home, saying, “If you can’t get up to come to work, then you don’t work here.”
He didn’t take me back until two weeks later. When he did, he told me, “If you’re early, that means you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late again, you’re fired for good.” To this day, I’m always early — for everything.
Before he passed away, he told me, “Take care of your family.” I make sure I do. That extends to my Dynatrace family, and my family of agency customers.
Every day, I want to make sure they are best positioned to achieve all of the goals and missions they are seeking to achieve. It means the world to me that my father saw this in me before he left us.